Early March is the end of one of two dry seasons in western Kenya. Farmers get up early to beat the heat to prepare the hard and dry soils for the coming rains and the next planting season. This region was fortunate and was spared of the worst droughts in decades resulting from the current El Niño event in which an estimated 36 million people from Ethiopia to Zimbabwe have been subject to devastating food shortages. Instead of drought, El Niño brought in December heavy rains to western Kenya which were accompanied by flooding, soil erosion, and the accelerated leaching of nutrients compounding the already acute challenges of soil acidification. The farmers in this region know all too well the effects of land degradation on their harvests and food sovereignty. High population density across western Kenya means that farmers must increase production on a shrinking acreage of land.
In response to the continuing trend in land degradation, sustainable land management (SLM) practices are being promoted as a way of protecting and rehabilitating land resources. Despite the immense efforts of national and international programs and projects over the past decades seeking to encourage smallholder farmers to adopt SLM in the region in order to increase harvests, many farmers remain food insecure. SLM practices promoted through various projects were rarely continued by farmers after the end of projects’ period, or adopted by other farmers who did not benefit directly from the projects promoting them. To explore project strategies which target smallholders’ main challenges to food security, farmers, decision makers, science and development experts alike must work together to develop solutions to well-known problems that constrain their uptake.
What are the lessons learned from SLM projects?
On two days in early March 2016, a multi-stakeholder workshop was held in Kisumu, Kenya to discuss the lessons learnt from the long-standing experience of implementing SLM in Bungoma, Kakamega and Siaya counties in western Kenya. Hosted by the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in collaboration with the German Development Cooperation (GIZ), the workshop brought together farmer representatives, representatives of county governments, implementers (rural extension service staff), development partners and academia to jointly discuss a way forward on soil protection, rehabilitation and SLM. In 2015, GIZ, in collaboration with these county governments, has begun implementation of a large-scale soil rehabilitation program, embedded in a global initiative by the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), “One World, No Hunger”. The IASS works closely with the GIZ through the social science-based research project “Soil Protection and Rehabilitation for Food Security” aiming to identify and develop pathways to overcome the known constraints to more sustainable land management. This transdisciplinary process takes place in close collaboration with key stakeholders from the farmers to policy makers. The workshops in Kenya were a successful kick-off for the IASS project, which will be subsequently carried out in Benin, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and in India.
Farmer’s Perspective in Focus
The workshop with institutional stakeholders was preceded a week earlier by a farmers’ workshop in Kakamega, Kenya attended by approximately 40 farmers from the three counties in question. The workshop gathered the farmers’ perspectives on the major challenges in agriculture and food security, possible solutions to these challenges, and the responsible actors for taking redress action. Representatives from this farmer’s forum attended the workshop in Kisumu one week later to report on the group’s findings. The farmers’ workshop concluded with the following message, which was the point of departure for the workshop to follow:
In western Kenya, the farmers have seen many sustainable land management (SLM) projects funded through international development agencies come and go. Even when the development projects are aimed at improving their livelihoods, the perspectives of these farmers are often not integrated into the research and project implementation process. Indeed, the farmers have important information about the constraints which hinder them from continuing the SLM practices promoted by SLM projects. Among these are economic issues such as lack of access to credit or the high costs of inputs. The constraints can also be culturally based- linked to family decision making, or social in nature, such as in the limited availability of labor. Overcoming these limitations remains a major challenge.
The active and diverse contributions by the participants and the open atmosphere of the meeting were noted by many participants. Perhaps it was the change of focus, namely on the challenges identified by the farmers themselves which created a strongly collaborative atmosphere at the workshop. An important aim of the workshop was to reach a consensus amongst diverse stakeholders on the challenges in the regions and the approaches to be used in the search for solutions. According to Paul Okonga, a farmer representative and community activist, “This is the best way of initiating project strategies because the emphasis is on a multi-consensus of the affected and those who want to support the projects. When it is done together it is my sincere belief, that we shall go very far”.
There was a strong consensus for the need for policy and institutional revision of agricultural development in general and sustainable land management in particular in order to address many of the challenges to sustainable land management in a cross-cutting way. Philgona Ooko, Minister of Agriculture from Siaya County related the issues raised by farmers to a change in policy: “… the issues raised [ by the farmers] touch on changes in the institutions that serve farmers. …There is a need for technical know-how that is viable and acceptable to the famers, for their use, their uptake and their adaptability“.
Finding a common formulation for the steps ahead in support soil rehabilitation and sustainable land management for increased food security in the three counties was the aim of a consensus document discussed at the concluding session of the workshop. The following nine themes, with relevance for policy, practice and research were crystallized from workshop discussions in Kisumu: and summarized by the workshop chair, the IASS. (Download here)
- Need for the protection and rehabilitation of soil resources in western Kenya,
- Cross-cutting role of policies and institutions
- Need for coordination of SLM efforts
- Support for farmers’ interests organizations
- Importance of exit strategies for SLM projects
- Need for review of existing extension approaches in supporting food insecure farmers.
- Importance of responsive rural services
- Need to explore local innovations to address the challenge family decision-making processes pose to rights of access to and control of resources, land in particular by women and youth.
- Need to appreciate all sources of knowledge and experiences.
The Way Forward
Boniface Kiteme, director of the Centre for Training and Integrated Research in ASAL Development (CETRAD) and moderator of the workshop in Kisumu commented: “When you look at the nine points, you can prepare very elaborate action plans from each of them, and you can translate that action plan into resources that are required to roll those actions on the ground- and this is where the challenge lies…If we could get even 10% of what we have agreed today implemented, that would be a great success!”
The IASS researchers are now tasked to design concrete research packages out of the nine consensually agreed themes. These will include possible ways of combining demand- and supply-driven extension and local innovations for dealing with tenure insecurity of women and youth.